Harry Potter castle at Universal Studios, Japan

Harry Potter parallels with religion

14 November 2019
Professor Carole Cusack found that Potterheads can be seen as akin to worshippers in their devotion to the fabled tales.

Professor of Religious Studies in the School of Literature, Art and Media, Carole Cusack, has found several parallels between J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world and traditional religions.

Published in a book Professor Cusack co-edited, The Sacred in Fantastic Fandom: Essays on the Intersection of Religion and Pop Culture[1], her chapter highlights four key similarities between the book series and the realm of the sacred:

  • readers imagine an ‘otherworld’ that transcends mundane reality
  • readers tend to explore books’ texts for hidden meanings that they perceive as only accessible to devotees
  • fans are communities of believers with common commitments and interests
  • enacting elements of the Harry Potter story - through cosplay, attendance at conventions like Leaky-Con, PotterVerse and PotterCon, and tourism - resembles religious pilgrimages

Professor Cusack explains that the phenomenon of a fictional story becoming religion-like is not new. Jediism, for instance, arose from the Star Wars franchise, with people even recording it as their religion on national censuses.

More adult than you’d think

Not all incarnations of Potter fandom are for children. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, for example, a podcast created by Harvard Divinity School graduates, is decidedly adult. Each episode encompasses the hosts analysing a chapter of a Harry Potter novel using lectio divina, a traditional mode of interpretation of Christian religious texts, “in order to draw out the sacred nature of Rowling’s books,” Cusack said.

In the first episode, ‘Commitment: The Boy Who Lived (Book 1, Chapter 1)’, the hosts ask listeners: “What gifts is it going to give us if we love something, and we love it with rigour, and we love it with commitment?” Other episodes cover topics such as love, fear, death, and resurrection – all common religious themes.

Spiritual zeal

Not all forms of Potter-worship are as highbrow as Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Fan communities are differently, but as faithfully, engaged in practices with spiritual overtones.

“Serious fans might be termed ‘devotees’ as they manifest a deep, almost religious, attachment to their popular cultural text of choice,” Professor Cusack said.

She describes the religious-like behaviour of a Potter devotee: Mikhail (a pseudonym). Once a passionate fan, Mikhail felt betrayed by the content of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – the sixth and penultimate book in the series. “Along with many others, he believed that Rowling was a channel for the story, not an author or creator (a view that Tolkien religionists hold about Tolkien), and had got parts of the story wrong,” Cusack said.

Fast Potter facts

The Harry Potter books have:

  • been translated into more than sixty languages
  • sold more than 450 million copies
  • been made into eight films grossing over $7 billion
  • grossed nearly $25 billion in overall revenue (books sales, films, merchandise)

[1] Together with John W. Morehead and Venetia Laura Delano Robertson (Victoria University, Wellington)

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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